Right off the bat, I want to let it be known that I’m not an expert on the voice. I have played piano for many years, although I’m a little rusty now, and I did study voice for about fourteen years. So, while I’m not going to go all Sarah Brightman on anyone, I do have a little knowledge. I just won’t get super technical. Anyway, onward… 🙂
Judy Garland was a brilliant and memorable performer on so many levels, and one of the things people talk about the most about her is her voice. That big, wonderful, earnest, expressive voice.
As we all know, Judy started performing at the age of two, when she got up on stage at her father’s theater in Grand Rapids and belted out “Jingle Bells.” By all accounts, she sang the song nine times and had to be carried off, but the crowd loved it.
Frank and Ethel Gumm immediately got Judy singing with her two older sisters, Suzy and Jimmie, and again, as we all know, she became the standout very quickly. She was always taught to sing loud, because in vaudeville, of course, they didn’t have microphones. Judy probably didn’t mind; her voice was made to be big. Here’s an early surviving recording:
This clip from October 26, 1935 gives a good idea of what Judy’s voice was like when she first signed with MGM. She killed it here, but the key phrase to keep in mind is “raw talent.” Judy’s dominant vibrato almost seems to control her in this piece. She also sings a few flat notes, and she needed to elongate some of her vowels, particularly on the word, “rhythm.”
However, Judy may have just been nervous that night. This 1935 recording of “Bill” for Decca is an amazing rendition, especially considering it’s a pretty adult song and Judy wasn’t quite thirteen when she recorded it:
Even geniuses need guidance, and Judy’s first MGM mentor was Roger Edens. Judy said later that Roger’s method of training her voice was to write little arrangements for her instead of making her do scales. Roger taught Judy intonation and how to control her big vibrato. Most importantly, he helped her to communicate more effectively. “It was Roger who taught me to feel a song,” Judy remembered.
By the time Judy did The Wizard of Oz, her voice had improved considerably. Judy fans need no buildup to this song:
Never gets old, and it never will.
The music world is divided on Judy’s voice classification. Some sites peg her as a middle-range contralto, while others say she’s a mezzo-alto. I’m inclined to go with the latter, because while Judy’s timbre is deep, she stuck to ranges and intervals between middle and high C, which is where a lot of altos feel most comfortable. It’s generally agreed that she was able to sing between the notes of D3 and G5.
I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s easier for me to picture these notes in terms of a piano keyboard, and here’s what Judy’s range looks like:
Judy may have had her usuals, but she was able to break out of them on occasion. Take this deleted song from 1942’s For Me And My Gal, for instance:
The song featured bigger intervals than Judy typically sang, and required more head tones than she was used to, but even so, she punched those notes. It’s easy to see why “Three Cheers” was cut. For one thing, its talk of planes and tanks was much more typical of the Second World War than the First. Not only that, but the song’s brassiness didn’t really fit with the lush, early twentieth century sound of the rest of the score. Still, it’s a fine exhibit of what Judy could do when she got out of her comfort zone, and it’s a shame the public couldn’t hear the song at the time For Me And My Gal was released.
Another sample of Judy at her peak is “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ Down At Carnegie Hall” from 1943’s Thousands Cheer:
The applause is real, folks. The applause is real.
It’s always interesting when brilliant artists add more color to their pallettes, and Roger Edens wasn’t Judy’s only major musical mentor. In the forties, she began working with Kay Thompson as well, who was really into the vampy style of swing and jazz, and her influence shows in this piece from 1946’s Ziegfeld Follies.
Not only is Judy’s wickedly funny sendup of Greer Garson spot on, but she’s hitting more head notes in this song. She made Kay Thompson’s approach her own, integrating it into her later MGM work, the last of which was “Get Happy” from Summer Stock:
When she made A Star Is Born, Judy took a no-holds-barred approach to the music. It was if she was telling her naysayers and MGM that nothing was going to hold her back, and that she had a strong future ahead of her. Even the ballads have a full-on, full-out feel to them. “The Man That Got Away” is a great one:
It’s a testament to Judy as a performer that she was able to put as much as she did into the song, and it’s a testament to George Cukor that it was filmed in one long take with no cuts. He knew Judy could carry the emotion without breaking, and he allowed her to shine.
During the last years of her life, Judy’s voice took on a rougher tone, and also lowered slightly. This was due to several factors. Judy not only drank and smoked, both of which are murder on the vocal cords, but she drank high amounts of black coffee for much of her life, another no-no. For the most part, singers are advised to stick to plain water, because caffeine dehydrates. Judy’s drug use also contributed to her voice changing, but even without that, her voice would have probably altered at least a little bit.
Another big factor is age. What I’ve always been told is that vocal ability peaks at age thirty-six. However, with care, singers can preserve their voices much longer. I have a friend who’s in his sixties and a professional singer, but his voice has not degraded much at all because as far as I know he’s never drank or smoked. Then there’s Tony Bennett, who’s ninety-one and still bringing it. Can we say “goals?”
This clip, recorded on December 13, 1963 for The Judy Garland Show, is Exhibit A of Judy’s abilities in the early to mid-1960s:
Judy dedicated the hymn to John F. Kennedy, who had recently been assassinated, and even said, “This is for you, Jack,” before she began, which, oddly enough, was cut out by the network. It’s a real shame because it gives purpose to the palpable emotion she shows here. Ever the trouper, Judy channeled her grief into her delivery of the song, which utilized her range beautifully and is considered one of the best performances of her career.
In spite of the setbacks, Judy still maintained the intense earnestness and expressiveness she always had. She may have sounded a little wearier and worn out towards the end of her life, but her tenacity never wavered. This clip of her singing “Over the Rainbow” three months before her death shows the amazing talent Judy still was, even after all she had been through.
There aren’t many performers who can communicate that effectively, and Judy Garland’s voice is a high-water mark. Decades after her death, her voice always strikes right to the heart, and will continue to do so as long as people listen.
That does it for my Day Three, and for more Judy, well, you know who to see. 🙂 Thanks, Crystal, for hosting–glad we could do this again! Thanks for reading, lovely humans, and see you next time.